A new APS report recommends that, in order to maintain a source of low-emissions electricity, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allow nuclear power plants to operate for up to 80 years. After a review of ongoing government and industry-sponsored research, the study's authors say that there appear to be no "show-stopping" technical hurdles to extending the operational life of some, but not all, reactors.
The report, titled "Reviewing Licenses for the Nation's Nuclear Power Plants," recommended also more research into plant safety and further federal support of new reactors. Currently, the NRC licenses plants for up to 60 years of operation.
"It is technically feasible to keep much of our fleet of nuclear reactors going," said Roy Schwitters of the University of Texas at Austin and chair of the study group that assembled the report. He added that doing so would buy more time as renewable energy sources mature.
Furthermore, the report urges utilities to consider the consequences of carbon emissions in their business decisions regarding extending the licenses of nuclear power plants.
The study comes as policy makers have started taking a second look at nuclear energy as a potential carbon-free energy source. Eleven new plants since 2007 have applied for operating licenses, the most since the Three Mile Island accident. Recently, four influential climate scientists released an open letter to environmental policy makers calling for greater investment in nuclear power to combat climate change.
However the nuclear industry is also facing roadblocks to new investment. Public support of nuclear power has weakened somewhat following Fukushima. At the same time, advances in hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," have led to cheap natural gas prices and attracted many new investors.
"That is clearly an attractive potential source for industries because of the cost involved," Schwitters said. He added that recertifying nuclear plants for an additional 20 years would make nuclear power more competitive because power companies wouldn't have to build expensive new plants. "For the industry, that can be very profitable because the large investments have been paid."
The committee cautioned also that if such licenses are not extended soon, the United States stands to lose as much as 20 percent of its clean energy supply starting in 2030. Currently there are about 65 nuclear power plants operating in the United States that were granted operating licenses before 1977.
Though there has also been an upsurge in interest in solar and wind energy, Schwitters said that they have their limitations. Nuclear, he said, was the only mature low carbon technology that could be scaled up to a national industrial level while other technologies develop further.
"We just don't see very good alternatives at the moment for the base power needs for the country," Schwitters said. "We've viewed [extending nuclear plant operation] as a technically sensible approach for buying more time."
To extend the lives of existing plants, the report included a list of recommendations for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, building on ongoing research being done by the Department of Energy's "Light Water Reactor Sustainability Program" and industry's Electric Power Research Institute's "Long-Term Operation Program."
The recommendations advised that the EPA develop strategies to make low-carbon energy, including nuclear, economically competitive and that DOE provide greater funding to further research the safety and reliability of extended life plants.
The report was prepared under the auspices of the APS Panel on Public Affairs. The panel produces reports on topics being considered by government, to bring the perspective of physicists into the debate.
Primary audiences for the report are the financial sector and investors who consider the consequences of carbon emissions in their business decisions by applying environmental, social and governance criteria to them. The study is being released via a series of webinars and discussions with investors, banks and utilities. John Rowe, chairman emeritus of the Exelon Corp., has joined Schwitters in advancing the report's recommendations.
"POPA recognized almost two years ago now, this was a technological area where there was not much known and that these reactors would be approaching their end of licensing lifetimes," Schwitters said. "It's an important tech topic, so POPA decided to look into it and form a study."
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Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella